The nomenclature of showrunning

Over the last few years there’s been a growing call in the UK drama industry for a move to a US-style system, where the person in charge of a TV programme is also a writer. In this country I’m only aware of two shows that do this: Doctor Who and Holby City.

Unfortunately, this system is often incorrectly called the showrunner system.

Every show has a showrunner.

The showrunner is the person who makes the final decisions, creative and otherwise.

Sure, networks and studios give notes, and they can cancel the show or fire the showrunner if they don’t get implemented, but the person who who gets to make the final decision on what happens and what doesn’t – that’s the showrunner.

The UK has showrunners too. They’re mostly producers without a writing background, who came up through script editing and script development – the same as the US system used to be up until the 70s.

(It’s still possible in both the UK and US systems to have someone who’s in charge of all the writing of a show, without being in charge of the production. In this case, they’re usually referred to as the Lead Writer, but the person in overall charge of the production is the showrunner.)

Most showrunners in the US, however, were hired as writers first, and learned their producing trade over the years. There’s a career path in the US writers room system, from Staff Writer all the way up to showrunner, and the amount of producing duties involved grow as you work up the ladder.

I personally believe that having a writer-producer in charge is the way forward for television series. Now you can call that the writer-showrunner system, or the US system, but let’s not call that the showrunner system.

Because we already have showrunners.

2 Replies to “The nomenclature of showrunning”

  1. Piers – As I’ve come to understand it, the point of the showrunner system lies in making the author responsible for the execution. Not, alas, out of an impulse to be kind to writers, but to streamline the creative process and maximise the chances of the end product having a distinct identity. Every showrunner I’ve encountered has been a writer with producing skills. The nonwriting producer is a separate entity. I’ve heard them called Pods – I think it stands for producing-only deal but it’s hard to be sure, and for once Google’s of little help. So many iPods and podcasts. Not to mention Print On Demand.

    The Canadian Writers’ Guild has produced a ‘showrunner code’ including a list of competencies for the role: it’s at tinyurl.com/y85sa36

  2. In the US, pretty much every showrunner now is a writer, which is why the term is often used here in the UK to mean writer-showrunner. And you’re bang on about the function of the role: to put the power in the hands of writers, streamline the production process, and make a better TV show.

    The problem with calling nonwriting producers with creative control pods (or any other word) is that it takes away the distinction of the word showrunner being the person with actual creative control of the series, which I think is worth preserving.

    (In the UK at the moment, I’ve heard the phrase “exec” used to mean showrunner in the inclusive sense – “Who’s execcing that show,” or “Who’s the exec on that.” – regardless of the number of people credited as Executive Producer.)

    Denis McGrath, working in the Canadian system, defends the use of the word showrunner to mean writer-showrunner, but as you can see from the comments disagreeing there, the use of the word isn’t locked down in Canada yet.

    Ideally, IMHO, every showrunner should be a writer-showrunner – but I think it’s actually worth keeping the distinction between those two jobs and words.

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